The 2022-23 season has definitely been one to forget for Son Heung-min. After perhaps his best professional season just last year when he co-won the Golden Boot while vaulting Tottenham Hotspur into the Champions League, this season Son has yet to have a good run of form.
For Spurs supporters, the enigma of Son has been widely discussed among the fanbase. The truth regarding Son is that he always has run either really hot or really cold. For as many positives there are in his game, there are also negatives and depending on the match speed and how the match is playing out, we can see both.
Let’s start with the positives: Son is a player that can finish as well or better than anyone else in the world. Because he is so gifted with both of his feet, he is a threat to score from distance or anywhere near and inside the opposition’s box. Because of his game-breaking speed — a trait of his that has yet to decline despite him entering his 30s — he can stretch defenses and ultimately split them apart before getting in on goal.
However, Son struggles mightily when he has to play in tight spaces and make quick decisions with the ball at his feet. He is not the type of player who links up well (aside from with Harry Kane) and he struggles in building up play because of that. This season, playing almost entirely in the de facto dual number ten role alongside Dejan Kulusevski and behind Harry Kane in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 shape, Son’s negatives have been discussed at length and his goal contributions have taken a back seat to his weaknesses. Additionally, there has been discussion of the inclusion of Ivan Perišić at wingback and how the Croatian’s desire to get forward has (or has not) affected Son’s form.
Despite his underwhelming form, Son is still the primary choice to start and play most matches for Spurs this season. The reason for this was due to a combination of factors: injuries, Conte’s lack of trust in potential alternatives, along with the well-earned “club respect” Son has accrued over his years of service at Spurs. There have been times here and there this season where Son has came off the bench, making way for a player like Richarlison to start those matches in his place. Oddly enough, it is in those matches where most of Son’s goal return has come from (3 against Leicester in September and 1 against West Ham in February). Unfortunately, due to Conte’s tactical stubbornness and lack of rotation across the squad, Son fell victim to the system that worked so well for him in the spring of last season.
While the remnants of Conte’s staff and his ideas still remain since his mutually-agreed departure a few weeks ago, there is still optimism for Son at least as Spurs look to finish in a European place with their Champions League hopes all but gone. In the past five matches, Son has four goal contributions, including three goals. While Conte has left the club, acting manager Cristian Stellini has persisted with the 3-4-3 shape however there is more influence coming from Ryan Mason due to his upgraded role.
In Stellini’s defense, one alteration he has performed in the side has been unleashing Son to play a bit more to his strengths. In doing this, Son has played less in tight spaces and more on the shoulder, giving way for his best traits to be utilized to provide more goal threat in the side. This is a change that could have been made all season long by Conte and company, but for some odd reason it was not. Of course, it does not come surprising at all that Son is looking like his old self by playing in a role more tailored to his best features.
After this past weekend’s debacle at home against lowly Bournemouth, there will not be many who are optimistic about Spurs’ final seven games down the stretch. The truth is that this season hurts even more because there was real belief at the start of it that perhaps Conte could get the squad fighting for aspirations even higher than just a fourth-place finish in his second season. Now, Spurs could be looking at a fight for one of the other two least-prestigious European competitions. It may be more to the benefit of Spurs and their next manager next year to not have European games midweek but a club the size of Spurs will certainly be relying on the gate admission and extra revenue provided from international matches.
Stellini, Mason and the rest of the squad will look to right the ship on Sunday at Newcastle. It has become apparent just how low the morale in the squad is after the past few months as well as the treatment of Davinson Sánchez on Saturday.
Stellini will need to focus on the positives for Sunday and it starts with Son. There is plenty of quality still in Son’s game and while this season has not been his best compared to the high standards he set last season, a good run of form from the South Korean will be important as Spurs need some added goal return from another player outside of Kane. With the small philosophical tweak, Son can prove to be crucial for Spurs down the stretch.
Follow me on Twitter @RyanSRatty.